The failed Arab Spring

It was in January 2011 that the “Arab Spring” began with the ousting of the President of Tunisia. The overthrow of repressive regimes throughout the Middle East was inspiring. But now, five years later, Islamic State is creating mayhem. There are civil wars in Syria and Yemen. The Sunni-Shia conflict has increased in Iraq which has been destabilised further by the civil war in Syria. There are authoritarian governments in Egypt and Bahrain and the Tunisian government is becoming more dictatorial. The Libyan central government has collapsed. Turkey is attacking the Kurds across its border in Iraq and Syria. Then there is the huge number of migrants fleeing the conflicts.

One of the causes of the failure of the Arab Spring has been the fact that the removal of dictators has not been followed up by the establishment of democracy and a trustworthy state. The Islamic movement was seen as the means for opposition. Initially, the west failed to see that the opposition in Syria and Iraq was becoming dominated by extreme Islamists.

So the Middle East has become more unstable than for at any time in the last century.

The colonial background

One of the factors which has caused tension in the Middle East and which drives the extreme Islamists is what the colonial powers did back in 1916. Britain and France secretly agreed to divide up the old Ottoman Empire between them. They created modern Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine without regard to the people groups and religious affiliations. This did not go down well with the Arabs and led to distrust of the West.

More recently the Western powers have not supported various Middle Eastern countries as well as they should. During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union supported weak regimes because their collapse could have given an opportunity to one side or the other. That need is no longer relevant. So there are numerous conflicts in the region.

Christianity disappearing

A report has been published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), entitled “Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2013-15.” In it John Pontifex, ACN Head of Press and Information, said: “A cultural genocide of Christians is erasing the presence of faithful from large swathes of the Middle East, the very heartland of the Church. Far from laying the entire blame for persecution against Christians at the door of extremist Islam [the report] demonstrates that many of the problems stem from non-Muslim extremist – nationalist – faith groups and historically communist totalitarian regimes.” The Middle Eastern countries where Christians are most at risk include Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria.

Saudi Arabia

I have written elsewhere about the secret agreement between the UK and Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries are on the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record and executes one person every two days, normally by beheading. When Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, was asked if the UK should be urging the Saudis to reform their policies he responded: “That is not the way the world works. You can’t just trade with the countries you approve of, otherwise you would be ruling out trade with China, Russia, and probably three-quarters of the world.” However, that should not involve the UK doing such things as helping Saudi Arabia to be on the Human Rights Council. Little wonder that The Independent carried an editorial in January 2016 which stated: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace.”

Syria

Saleh Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish leader, warned that if Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, is defeated by the rebels it would be a world calamity because they are dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda terrorists. Yacoub el-Hillo, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, warned that because of the conflict in Syria “Europe will be faced with a refugee situation similar to the one that led to the creation of [the UN Refugee Agency] UNHCR in 1950”.

Egypt

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, is becoming increasingly dictatorial. There are 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt, half of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and many of them sentenced to death. This has encouraged extremists like Isis. Sinai is now as much under Isis control as Egyptian control.

Iran

Despite the agreement that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons (for 10-15 years), it is still a threat. Many countries don’t trust the Iranian regime. Iran backs Assad’s government in Syria, as well as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which do not accept the legitimacy of Israel. It also backs the Shia Muslim rebels in Yemen. The new freedom which Iran now enjoys could provoke a major Sunni versus Shia conflict throughout the Middle East. This could lead Saudi Arabia and Egypt into a nuclear arms race. Iran’s antagonism to Israel continues with Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan calling Israel “the world’s centre of evil, espionage and warmongering.”

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. There is great instability and ominous rivalry. Amongst the many innocent people who are suffering from the situation in the Middle East are millions of Christians. We need to pray for them and for the Middle East generally.

The NT predicts that the “last days” will be characterised by what Jesus called an “increase of wickedness” including selfishness, materialism, arrogance, rebellion, resentment, slander, self-indulgence, violence and treachery. So we should be alert to a decline in standards in society.

Reduced trust

Only 30% of British citizens believe “most people can be trusted” and 70% say you “need to be very careful” about trusting strangers, according to a recent World Values Survey. Trust has declined remarkably in the UK over the years. In the 1950s almost 60% believed strangers could be trusted and in the 1980s the trust level was 40%. The UK lags behind Germany (44%) Australia (57%) Norway (73%) and Sweden (65%).

Priority of Mammon

David Halpern, a senior government adviser, has warned the government that this decline in trust could be very damaging. This concern for society sounds encouraging until it becomes clear that Halpern is worried about the damage to prosperity and economic growth. He said: “Social trust seems to be a powerful predictor of economic growth and a lack of trust can stunt national economic growth rates. This really is super important.” So, Mammon wins again.

Armando Iannucci, writing in The Guardian, said “Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money.” He continued: “For the first 70 years or so of the 20th century, politics debated the power and limits of the state: the manifestos of the parties reflected how much or how little each party felt the government should involve itself in the lives of the individual. Everyone accepted there was such a thing as society, and we were given regular chances to define it. Politics was about passion, and imagination, and foresight. Now it’s just accountancy … Education became all about getting us ready for jobs … Health became a mysterious and un-debated obsession to turn our hospitals into market economies.”

In July 2014 the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that many MPs show little interest in the principles drawn up in 1995 after sleaze scandals when John Major was prime minister. It recommended that MPs take an induction course on the seven principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Reduced importance for Human Rights

Human rights are no longer a top priority for the British government according to Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. He said that “the need to concentrate on Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia has supplanted it to an extent.”

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee responded: “This is particularly disappointing after the progress made under the previous Foreign Secretaries, including William Hague who promised in 2011 that there would be “no downgrading of human rights”, as “it is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests”. We wholeheartedly share the concerns of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, whose UK director, David Mepham, commented: “This unwillingness to fully champion rights and fundamental freedoms runs counter to the best traditions in this country’s history and weakens the UK’s global standing and influence.”

Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International, commented: “When much of the Middle East is in flames and a refugee crisis is engulfing Europe, Sir Simon’s comments are as astonishing as they are alarming.”

Association with oppressive regimes

It is interesting that McDonald’s comments came on day 4 of the visit to the UK by Xi Jinping, the president of China.

It has come to light that Britain made a secret deal with Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries were elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record. It has allowed over 100 beheadings in recent months. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, commented: “Based on the evidence, we remain deeply concerned that the UK may have contracted to elect the world’s most misogynistic regime as a world judge of human rights.”

Jon Snow interviewed David Cameron on Channel 4 about this deal with Saudi Arabia but Cameron tried to avoid the question. Eventually he said: “We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia and if you want to know why I’ll tell you why. It is because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.”

We have also been supplying arms to Saudi Arabia which it is using in a very destructive war in Yemen. A recent editorial in The Independent said: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace. It makes a mockery of our claims to have an ethical approach to bilateral relations with other countries, and it betrays a lickspittle way of dealing with autocratic regimes, which should be a source of embarrassment to people of any political persuasion.” The paper allows that the Saudi regime may be the lesser of two evils because of who might replace them. But it adds that does not mean we should give it “our patronising pat on the head.” Rather we should be holding it to account.

Cuts in welfare payments and inequality

Back in February 2014 the Bishops issued a statement criticising Government welfare reforms: “We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions … We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must ‘heat or eat’ each winter…”

In January 2016 a government Briefing Paper outlined that long-term unemployed people will either be required to attend the job centre every day for three months (which is ludicrous for those who don’t live near a job centre) or 30 hours voluntary work a week for six months. Those who don’t comply will face sanctions – losing their Job Seeker Allowance for four weeks in the first instance and for thirteen weeks in the second instance.

A report published by the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed church, as well as Church Action on Poverty said the government is more concerned
with cutting benefits than helping people back to work, resulting in greater poverty and reliance on foodbanks. Over one million unemployed were subject to sanctions in 2014 – benefits being stopped for a few weeks up to three years. Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, said “The findings of this report are disturbing. It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.” Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty commented: “Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute. This policy must be reviewed urgently.”

In July 2015 the Chancellor wanted to cut tax credits linked to a national living wage, claiming 90% of families would be better off. The Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said it was “arithmetically impossible” for the increase in minimum wage to compensate for the loss in tax credits. The proposal was debated in the House of Lords and Baroness Hollis of Heigham said: “We can be supportive of the Government and give them what they did not ask for – financial privilege – or we can be supportive instead of those three million families facing letters at Christmas telling them that on average they will lose up to around £1,300 a year, a letter that will take away 10 per cent of their income on average. That is our choice.” The House of Lords defeated the proposal.

The danger is that in seeking to curb abuse of the benefits system (or simply to save money) genuinely needy people will be penalised. The government should ensure these people are catered for even if it risks others being able to abuse the system.

Inadequate response to the refugee situation

At the beginning of 2016 28 aid agencies and charities wrote to the prime minister: “Last year’s announcement that the UK will resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years was a welcome first step, but given the numbers of people searching for safety across the globe, this response is clearly inadequate: it is too slow, too low and too narrow. The UK can and should be doing much more to ensure that refugees are not compelled to take life-threatening journeys or forced into smugglers’ hands.”

The letter demands safe and legal ways for refugees to reach the EU and travel across it, noting that in 2015 3,770 people died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. It added that refugees should have “access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection.”

It welcomed UK aid to Syria, Greece and the Balkans and agreed that tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis remains a priority. But it continues: “However, in the absence of peace, people will continue to flee. We must provide them with safe, well-managed escape routes and refuge.”

The letter concluded: “Over 64 years ago, soon after the horrors of the second world war, European governments adopted the refugee convention, an instrument of international law which British lawyers helped to draft. As a nation, we made a promise: that never again would refugees be left out in the cold to fend for themselves; that this country would protect them; that here, they would find safe haven.”

At the same time 123 economic experts, including former diplomats and Whitehall officials, wrote to David Cameron saying: “The costs in human wellbeing of the refugee crisis … are so extremely high that it is morally unacceptable for the UK not to play a fuller part in taking in refugees.” One of them, Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said: “Integrating refugees into our society and labour market will be, as it has been in the past, challenging. But we have done it before – with enormous benefits, both economic and social, to the UK – and there is absolutely no reason we cannot do it again.”

Conclusion

So in Britain we live in a society where trust has declined significantly, money has become a god, human rights have been somewhat devalued, oppressive regimes have been inappropriately supported, support for the poor has been significantly undermined and care for refugees has been seriously reduced.

The “Arab Spring”

The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events including the following:

December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.

January 2011 The Tunisian President fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian President to resign.

March 2011 Protests against President Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.

October 2011 Lybian President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.

February 2012 The President of Yemen resigned after protests.

June 2012 Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.

July 2013 Millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.

May 2014 Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt

Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead, there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August 2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia. The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th 2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.

International chaos in the Middle East

Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to ‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are the only strong states in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq

Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon. Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very difficult to control.

Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up to withstanding it.

Egypt

Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.

Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.

Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is seen as a terrorist group.

Iran

Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights. It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course, seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis share this suspicion.

Jordan

Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.

Kuwait

Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is regarded as an important ally by the West.

Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is regarded by many as a terrorist group.

It is a country where citizenship is only available to members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an acceptance of compromise.

Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused violent reactions from the Sunni community

Libya

Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments, including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the British arms industry’s largest customer.

Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Tunisia

Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey

Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.

Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.

Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Yemen

There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.

Summary

Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if necessary.

In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab League are to combine forces.

Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe – causing problems within the EU.

The effects on Christians

One thing that complicates the position of Christians in Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of Christians in the Middle East.

In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community, the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.

In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have been abducted, ransomed or executed.

Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.

The chaos in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has executed Christians.

Saudi Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats. Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.

The Israeli perspective

I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who, unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise leadership of her present government.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.

Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and ‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed, gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.

It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is seriously threatened – and things will get worse.

We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New Testament’s teaching on the End Times.